View Point – Rory Bergin of HTA Design

Rory Bergin examines ‘the ethics of development’ in the context of current practice.

Last year I was asked to speak about ethics and architecture at the APRES 2016 conference and I had to consider what ‘ethics’ means in a professional context and how relevant they are to the architectural profession in particular.

My colleague and president elect of RIBA Ben Derbyshire shares my concern that as a profession we haven’t quite grasped the nettle of ethics in a way that can be easily communicated among architects. He plans to launch an interdisciplinary and international ‘Sustainable Development and Ethics Commission’ during the forthcoming RIBA International Week taking place this July.

Since ethics are primarily about how we deal with each other, architects might be forgiven for wondering what that has to do with buildings built with inert materials. But since the purpose of building is to serve the needs of people, clients, users, occupants and society, there are ethical implications to every aspect of design and construction, some of which are covered in part by legislation, and many which aren’t.

Below I try to highlight just a few of the ethical issues that arise in each area.

Early considerations

Much of the ethical considerations arising during the early stages of the building’s life are covered by the stages of the Plan of Work and therefore the RIBA Code of Professional Conduct. But even early-stage design raises ethical issues, such as whether people need to be moved and rehoused to enable a regeneration project, or whether their needs are being balanced by the needs of those who will be housed in the new development.

Another valid question is whether we are designing buildings that will minimise the harm to those who are going to build them. Here, CDM legislation has helped enormously to raise awareness of safety in construction and in the use of buildings, but our traditional construction methods and procurement behaviour impose risks, which look less reasonable with every accident.

Local and global context

Another area where ethical dilemmas can arise is the building’s place in the local context, the wider context and the global context. Planning law and national legislation covers some of these considerations, but others, particularly the building’s impact on the global context of material extraction, are not. For example, there has been some recent discussion on the impact of tall buildings on the surroundings and how much ‘weight’ designers should give to such considerations when there is no legislation and little guidance relating to this impact.

In the wider context, architects are faced with the dangers of climate change, and while there is some legislation to address that in both Building Regulations and planning law, its implementation is patchy and the final building would often fail a detailed post-occupancy performance test. The Code of Professional Conduct is weak on the subject, so architects need to consider if the profession can be strong if local or national Government is going to be weak.

Purpose and effect on users and the region

There are various ethical considerations arising from the purpose and use of the building and the way it affects the client, the funders, owners, operators, through to local residents, the neighbouring region and the rest of the planet. Some of this is covered by Building Regulations or the legal duty of care, but much of it isn’t. The impacts of building low-rise homes on agricultural land is a case in point. For example, building low-density homes in suburbs that are far removed from services and amenities is already an obviously poor strategy in social and environmental terms, yet the majority of new homes in the UK fit into this category. Architects need to consider what the profession can do to represent the people who are only being offered a car-dominated environment to live in.

User requirements

The ranging needs of users is yet another area of ethical considerations. Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs provides a ready-made structure so architects may only need to assess how this structure relates to their work as designers and whether they are giving due attention to the different needs of building users. Fundamentally, the industry needs to assess how well or badly it addresses this we even begin to think about improving matters.

Currently, the clear priority is to satisfy the needs of the client, and provided that this is done within legislation, most architects would feel they have achieved an adequate result. However, the real question is whether architects should have a stronger obligation to society even in the absence of legislation, as our work has a long-lasting impact.